Recent figures from the Health and Safety Executive, reveal that the industry is slowly getting to grips with its poor record for site injuries and deaths, but it seems to me that more attention needs to be paid to the problem of stress – both for site and office based staff.

There do not seem to be any records for how well the industry tackles this problem but according to HSE figures, work related stress costs the country over £3.7 billion every year. Most responsible companies carry out basic health and safety training but directors and managers are rarely trained to be aware of the signs of stress in their people and what to do about it.

Stress Danger

Stress can often be a key factor when it comes to an employee’s performance and their decision whether or not they are prepared to stay with that employer.  Lack of retention of staff due to pressures that create too much stress is extremely costly to a business, resulting in symptoms such as an increase in sickness absence, low morale, poor performance and often a rise in complaints – both internally and externally.

health safe

In the past the construction industry had a reputation (in the main, totally justified) of the ‘bosses’ making all the decisions, ordering people around and generally ruling by fear and threat. If someone did not do as they were told, or up to the standard of the ‘boss’, it was quite simple – they were fired!

This mentality can logically only work in those times when there is a healthy ‘pool’ of ‘good people’ who can fill the shoes of employees (or even sub-contractors), who either leave due to the manner in which they are treated, or are dismissed.

Loss of skills

Since the 1990s recession the numbers of youngsters coming into the industry have shrunk and the numbers of those leaving due to retirement or disillusionment have grown.  At all levels this has left a dearth of these ‘good people’, the CITB reckoning that we need some 380,000 new recruits into the industry over the next 5 years, just to keep pace.

So there is no ‘pool’ and with the availability of work, people are having to do more, quicker and with less resources.  In increasingly litigious times, it is also worth remembering that businesses can leave themselves open to compensation claims from employees if they do not tackle stress related issues. It is a basis legal duty to ensure that employees are not made ill through their work

Reducing Stress

For all of these reasons, the construction industry cannot afford to ignore the consequences of stress.

There are many definitions of the word, but generally it is defined as an adverse reaction to excessive pressure that can lead to mental and physical ill-health.  Although working under pressure often improves performance, when pressure levels rise to an unacceptable level, stress can occur.

Managers need to be aware of the signs of stress in their employees and what to do to help reduce it.  For example, changes in mood or behavior, deteriorating relationships with work colleagues, lateness and absenteeism, frequent complaints and reduced performance can all indicate stress. And unless acted upon stress in one person can often cause a ‘domino’ effect on others.

Reducing stress though need not be expensive. Often it is sensible to carry out a simple risk assessment to identify what the pressures might be, deciding who is potentially being harmed and deciding whether enough is being done to prevent that harm. For this to be meaningful, the gathering of honest information, encouraging employees to be open and respecting their confidentiality is vital.

Having identified a problem, managers then need to know how they can support a person who is at risk, so that they do not deteriorate.  Additionally companies, who know that they work people hard, must create a culture that allows employees to admit when they are under stress without being victimized.

So many people under stress don’t feel that they can say ‘no’ to taking on more work but what they are actually doing is failing to perform on every aspect of what they do – thus adding to stress levels.  What they need to do is to recognise their limitations – but doing everything well within them.

Although there is no one single way of tackling stress, there are many training courses available to employees on how to handle it but at Helmsman our experience shows that, due to the ‘macho’ image of construction, it is only a very small proportion of those who actually require it, that feel confident enough to ask to attend, for fear of it being found out.

Training for Managers

Training for managers comes in various forms from examining ways in which to identify stress and to tackle it, to improving basic communication and interpersonal skills. Many of the companies for whom Helmsman have sourced such training courses have found them to be extremely beneficial for both individuals, managers and businesses.

Taking stress seriously is all down to good management. Opening channels of communication, ensuring that all staff have the necessary training and resources to do their job properly, introducing clear business objectives, not tolerating bullying or harassment and empowering staff so they are able to influence the way their jobs are done, all contribute to reducing the incidence of stress.

Mark Foster, Head of Health & Safety with Countryside Properties plc, past holder of the prestigious Sword of Honour award, says “Figures suggest that every day around 270,000 Brits take time off work because of stress related illness.  No business can afford to ignore the financial reality of stress and the effects that periods of absence, along with poor productivity, have on the bottom line.  Employers need to think about Health, as well as Safety when looking after their employees.”

With the construction industry booming thanks to the amount of public schemes and an increasing demand for new homes – but existing with an insufficient supply of labour, I questions whether any successful company can risk having sufficient good staff, the costs of  litigation and compensation ,as well as the inevitable effect on its reputation, by not providing training to all managers that can help them identify and support stress in the workplace.

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Tony Willson, the managing director of Helmsman Services Ltd, has huge knowledge about training and development strategy and tactics for all industries but especially in construction and care.